Phyllis Reynolds Naylor is celebrating a centennial of sorts this season, as her 100th and 101st books hit the shelves. Although she isn't planning to celebrate ("not even a bottle of champagne!"), Naylor does have one thought on reaching this literary milestone. "Whether or not I'll live long enough to write the next hundred," she quipped.
Published last month by Atheneum, Walker's Crossing is a contemporary novel about a boy whose brother joins a white supremacist group. And close on its heels comes A Traitor Among the Boys (Delacorte), the fifth installment about the rivalry between the Hatford boys and the Malloy girls.
Born in 1933 in Anderson, Ind., Naylor saw her first story published at age 16 in a church newspaper ("I got $4.67 for it," she reported). She continued to write and sell short stories throughout her teens, but said she never gave any serious thought to pursuing writing as a career.
Unexpectedly, writing became her lifeline, however, after Naylor, then 18, married "a very brilliant man at the University of Chicago, who three years later became a paranoid schizophrenic." To escape his fears of persecution, the couple moved repeatedly from state to state, and the only money coming in was what she earned writing for church publications.
Eventually, they moved to Maryland, where Naylor still resides. After her husband was committed to an institution, they divorced. This difficult period in her life later provided the seeds for two books, an autobiographical account for adults titled Crazy Love (1977) and a YA novel, The Keeper (1986), which was adapted into the ABC Afterschool Special My Dad Can't Be Crazy.
A few years later, Naylor remarried and returned to college. The income from her writing paid for tuition at American University, but she still didn't seriously consider writing as a career.
"Perhaps out of guilt that I wasn't able to help my first husband, I was planning to become a clinical psychologist," she said. "But when I got my B.A. in 1963, I decided I really wanted to write more than anything else, so I gave up graduate school to write full-time. I've never regretted it."
At first Naylor broadened the scope of her writing to include secular magazines like Humpty Dumpty. Then, in 1965, when her older son was three (her younger son hadn't arrived on the scene yet), she turned to novels. "It was scary as hell to make the leap," she said. "I thought I'd have to spend at least a year on a book, and that the year would be down the drain if the book wasn't accepted. I also worried that I'd get bored of the characters before I reached the end."
Follett initially rejected her first manuscript, but told Naylor that if she would rewrite it from a single viewpoint, they'd look at it again. She did, and What the Gulls Were Singing was published in 1967, "not to great reviews, but at least it was a start," she said.
"An Embarrassment of Riches"
A prolific writer, Naylor completes three or four books a year, including one release annually in her enormously popular Alice series (Alice in Rapture, Sort Of and Achingly Alice are just out in paperback from Aladdin). "I get ideas really fast," said Naylor candidly. "It sounds like an embarrassment of riches, but it can work against you when you're involved with one novel and getting ideas for others. I end up swatting at them like bees at a picnic!"
Over the course of her career, Naylor has received numerous awards for her work, including the Golden Kite Award, IRA Children's Choice, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, and, in 1992, the Newbery Medal for Shiloh. The story of a boy who saves a dog from its abusive owner, Shiloh was made into a Warner Bros. film in 1997. It will air on the Disney Channel this month. Shiloh 2: Shiloh Season, a sequel based on Naylor's second Shiloh novel, was released in July.
Naylor's editors give her top marks for the scope of her writing and her flexibility. "Phyllis is fun to work with, she has a terrific sense of humor, and she's also very professional," said Michelle Poploff, editorial director of Random House Children's Publishing.
"She has an extraordinary range," added Jonathan Lanman, associate publisher and editorial director of Atheneum Books for Young Readers, who has edited many of Naylor's books since 1985, including the Shiloh trilogy. Atheneum editor Jean Karl, who has worked with Naylor for more than 25 years on nearly 50 books, agreed. "Some people keep writing the same thing all the time, but Phyllis d sn't. She d s a remarkable number of different kinds of things."
Said Naylor matter-of-factly, "It keeps me fresh. If I just stuck to my Alice books, or if I made a series out of Shiloh -- which I'm not -- I'd be writing the same thing over and over. I could do that the rest of my life, but I like to try new things. I like to push myself."
Naylor has written on such serious topics as divorce (The Solomon System) and crib death (A String of Chances), as well as fantasies (her Witch series) and books on the lighter side, such as the Bessledorf mysteries, which will expand soon with Peril in the Bessledorf Parachute Factory (S&S, Feb. 2000). She has also written adult books, including In Small Doses, a collection of essays, and two novels, Revelations and Unexpected Pleasures.
Naylor still d s occasional school visits, something many writers give up after achieving a certain level of success. "Schools are the hardest to do," she said. "It's like a performance, and you're so drained at the end. I think that's why writers don't do it, but you lose something if you don't. You lose contact with how kids are behaving and dressing. Things subtly change in classrooms, and you need a sense of that."
She also maintains contact with her readers through the Alice Web site (www.simonsayskids.com/Alice), which she checks twice daily. "Kids write in all the time, and they bring up all kinds of things. It's a good way to stay in touch with kids, and since I have no daughters, it gives me an eye into the female world."
Walker's Crossing is currently featured on the Web site, and Simon & Schuster is promoting it at conferences and regional trade shows this fall. A tie-in paperback edition of Shiloh Season (Aladdin) was just published to coincide with the movie's release on video, and screenings were held at ALA and IRA for teachers and librarians.
Random House's Poploff cited a special promotion for fans of the Hatford/Malloy series. "We've just announced a contest for readers to appear as a guest character," she said. The winner and his or her school will appear in the seventh book (Naylor just turned in the manuscript for installment six, Love Is in the Air, which is scheduled for publication in fall 2000).
Meanwhile, Naylor is forging full-steam ahead, once again expanding her horizons. In February, Atheneum will publish Jade Green, her first gothic ghost story. "I just absolutely loved writing this book," said Naylor, who described the style as "sort of scary Jane Austen."
Trying new things like this, new voices and new genres, is the real goal Naylor has set for herself, she said, "rather than to see if I can write 100 books. Sometimes I fail, but if I can succeed and think, 'Gee, I've really grown' -- that's a nice feeling."